Thursday, 20 August 2015

Hopping About

This summer has been the wildest one so far. I never knew I could move around so much without going slightly mad. Time zones. Seasons. Languages. Wardrobes. Prior to the great Sydney expedition I took part in the second edition of the London Short Story Festival, four days saturated with short story wonders. I did a workshop with Ben Okri, and heard several of my favourite short story writers read including the original May-Lan Tan (Things to Make and Break, CB Editions - buy a copy and you won't lend it to anyone!), Canadian D.W. Wilson and the award-winning Kevin Barry. More about the festival delights on my Pelt blog this week. If you have a penchant for short stories as I have, you'll understand.

Then of course I spent nearly month in Sydney, mouth open, marvelling. At the beauty, at the rush of the city, at the harbour and her classic icons that fail to look jaded to this ex-Sydneysider. Gosh I will miss those days!

Another plane. Another airport. (I'm starting to feel like Nicole Kidman!) Abu Dhabi-Venice. Followed by an all-important wax before my impending beach holiday. A taste of heatwave northern Italy before boarding a plane the next morning for London, for the Bloomsbury launch of Fugue Vol. II, The Siren Press, and a reading from my kinky contribution 'Three Days in Hong Kong'. I can't believe I wasn't keeling over from jet lag and here I'll share a traveller's secret: melatonin. Take it if you have cross time zones!
 

A great evening and I was quite emotional at the idea this was my first book launch in Bloomsbury, at a swish place, with my pointy shoes and quiet voice and many other writers to admire and chat with. The Siren Press publisher Lucy Carroll has brought together a dark, quirky lot. Again, a full introduction to this volume is on my Pelt blog.


Of course to keep things simmering I had a second reading at Soho's Society Club. This time from my story 'The Book of Bruises', generously introduced by Structo editor, Euan Monaghan, an evening that involved fabulous cocktails and captivating readings. I was truly happy to be there! More coverage of that on my Pelt blog next week.

After surviving these two sessions I flew back to Venice for the grand finale, a week hiking and swimming and eating and dancing on a hippie island in Greece. This writer didn't want that week to end. Ever.

I hope your summer (or winter) moments were just a marvellous!

Now back to peddling stories which isn't so bad after all..

Monday, 6 July 2015

Homecoming Queen


It's been a long while. Unspeakably long. And while I have been catching cheap flights to London pretending to be a writer and swanning up and down the Dolomites in a corduroy skirt, my home city has been growing more and more balmy and glamorous. And glamour is the word that comes to mind when you catch the old bus you used to catch from university to the city. Glamour is the word that forms when you wander around the wintry water's edge watching a freezing Chinese bride on a photo shoot, while on your way to Marina Abramovic's warehouse installation on the revitalised wooden pier.

 An unexpected collective energy experience

All of Sydney seems to be about breathing life into old colonial buildings and primping palms along the waterfront. I haven't really wandered around much, but it feels so vivid and bustling and well-nourished and a little dizzying. A friend has already said she's heard Sydney is like a blonde with big tits, but she likes to add a clever blonde with big tits. Her words, not mine!
 
A chilly day at the ladies' rock pool at Coogee






And then there's the light that has an unhewn, vivid quality, and the sky such a limitless raw blue palette. And have I forgotten the vehement southern trees - all spiky and blue-green? And the cawing birds screeching across the skies? And the water, the intoxicating water of the bay down there, with its clanking moored sailing boats and those glassy villas clutched around every inlet. Such a busy colossal city with its traffic of birds and overhead jets in descent and river ferries cutting the water!


You can tell I've been perving at this city non-stop.

I confess that in all these years I have only written a few stories set in Australia, even though I spent twenty years growing up here. And an age reading and returning to Australian authors, who so often explore the themes of exile and displacement that are dear to me. Take Patrick White, Nobel Prize winner in 1973, whose opus I read almost entirely in my twenties, whose challenging Voss I read a few years back to see how it would play upon my older sentiments. And Christina Stead, whose For Love Alone probably set me off on my journey in the first place. Then there is Shirley Hazzard whose The Transit of Venus I must reread, and Elizabeth Harrower, only just discovered last year, who in The Watch Tower also captured the breezy salty pulse of this harbour.

As I sit here you should hear the birds! Wild things my countrymen will never tame. Last time I remember my mother mentioned a murder that took place in the garage of a building site on the point, and that tale became the Pushcart-nominated story Magaly Park. And this time I have walked more than once past this garage and through the park and around the sandstone point, entering the hyper-reality of the story world I made up; a really strange sensation. I half-expected my two characters - ex-swimming champion Grant and his teasing virgin girlfriend Tai to come slouching along the path. We writers are such scavengers: beware of what you tell us.

Alas! I have just over two more weeks of birdsong and ferries and the smell of eucalypts.

Friday, 6 March 2015

A Winter Love Affair

Anyone who knows me knows where my heart now lies in winter. Yes, there has been a slight displacement. I used to spend winter drooling over boots in shop windows and waiting for prices to come crashing down. I always used to find a good and solid reason to invest in just another pair of shoes. I mean, I needed them, I couldn't leave them. I was certain I didn't have a pair like this.

A dozen years have slipped by in this country. Children have been raised. Pets have been born and buried. Homework has been chewed by dogs (I'm serious: try telling superstar Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'go that the dog has chewed the copy of The Devil on the Cross that your son wants him to sign). Walls have been painted a half dozen colours; pipes have burst, cars have broken down and been driven into the ground (in fact, you raised your kids on Jimi Hendrix and Chopin on the tangenziale di Mestre). Cherries have been eaten and roses pruned and - last week! - the house finally has a heating system that works so that means nearly fifteen degrees in the kitchen!!

A long, good haul.

I'm not trying to be difficult or precious by saying I never wanted to live in Italy. When I was a young student with an Italian boyfriend living in snooty Paris, I couldn't help looking at Italy as a Fellini set, with all characters striving to look like Dolce e Gabbana models. The gesticulation drove me nuts. I mean, just say it! Without waving your hands! Without looking to see if everyone is checking you out. Stop talking over people and listen!

But one subsides, I guess; one becomes less hard-edged. One accepts. One - gulp! - probably even begins to behave like that.

The thing is that while there is a lot of social conformity in this country, there are great differences in region and terrain, which translates to mentality and attitude. In twelve years I have learnt to decipher a little of this, and in doing so I feel as though I have invented my Italy. An Italy that is far from clichéd (wine, pasta, monuments), and brings out the best in this France-loving Sydneysider ex-West African dweller.

Any idea what is coming next? You guessed it: the Dolomites.

Winter has become The Ski Season. It's when we abandon all ties to city life and friends and go barmy for snow, watching the weather, waiting for fresh snow, seeing if we can afford a new pair of skis, hanging out with a fantastic mountain crew. And while global warming will continue to shorten the season, as long as it's on, count me in. There is something so gutsy, so non-cerebral, so mind-blowing about falling in love with sunset or sunrise on a mountain summit, with a sweaty trek up to the slopes and a freezing ride in the chairlift, with filling your lungs with that giddy oxygen. While I can't really write about city life in Italy, I find the mountains inspiring, shocking, laden with tales to be told.

So I'm signing off. Now you know where to find me on these last winter weekends. Doing telemark curves on my favourite slope. Reading on the couch in an exhausted stupor. Drinking grappa al carrugo in some bar. Or just watching snow floating down out the window.

In fact, until April, this author has snow for brains.

Friday, 6 February 2015

How Fragile We Are

I was going to write a sombre-toned post-Charlie-Hebdo blog post about this winter's work mission to fashion week in Paris. You know, grey rooftops and the Eiffel Tower glittering in spite of all that horror. A jitteriness in the air that we may well have been imagining, jittery ourselves. And this contrasted with the wild and rewarding disco night we enjoyed, crowned with countless glasses of champagne. For Paris - she has lived revolution, siege and warfare - is licking her wounds.

But no. I came home from the tragic city to a small-scale family emergency. A child of mine in an ambulance. Everything thankfully resolved hours later in a local hospital. Then a day of follow-up in the wards of the massive hospital in town. Hours of standing, waiting, wishing for food, praying no one would jump the queue, finishing my book and nagging said child, as one does. A long day through which it all came home, how fragile we are. How we think we are steering our destinies but, in the grand arc of our lives, we are not. How we can try so hard to be healthy, to keep our dear ones healthy - and fail.

Like most of us I view hospitals as locations of dread. Awful nights of agony or the agony of a loved one - which you wish you could bear yourself. Mostly, these are relatively minor things which provide stonking stories afterwards: the time that guy crashed into your son and he was carried down the slopes on a stretcher; the time you put on snow chains halfway up the pass coming back from Agordo with your daughter's cracked arm in plaster and sling. But then there are the traumatic moments of fear, tests.. trying to read the doctor's face. The waiting. The knowledge that apart from childbirth or routine checkups, you are never going to be here for an innocent reason. It will always be because something it's wrong or if it isn't now, it will be one day.

Australian Tim Winton grew up 'In the Shadow of the Hospital' and wrote this stirring piece for Granta. 'No wonder so many great novels have been set in hospitals.. Hospitals make rich fictional settings because from the inside they are such chillingly plausible worlds themselves. They have their own surreal logic, their own absurd governance, their own uncanny weather, and the impotence and boredom they induce is hard to match anywhere by prison or the military.'

Once I finish reading my book I spend numerous hours looking at everybody around. There's a real cast of characters. Old creaky folk on stretchers, a pregnant African lady I can see is in pain, a labourer with blood running down under his cap, listless babies wrapped in scarves. Everyone is exposed, at some extremity of emotion. As Tim Winton says: '..in the lee of the hospital social camouflage slips away.. Where else do people bear their narratives so openly? Body language is heightened, almost balletic..'

Eight hours later when we go outside to the car park it is dark and colder. My son can walk now. We are both starving and glad of our release into the real world. But is it the real world? Or just a reprieve? Still more people pour over the bridge to the main entrance, an endless stream. Hard faces, each of them; fast paces, big coats. Nobody wanders into a hospital.

That night I remember dancing half-drunk in Paris just days ago, and the long drive home through France and up into the mountains, rain thrashing the windscreen, trucks passing outside the Psycho Hotel where myself and my colleagues hardly slept a wink.

I am grateful.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Heritage and Hipsters

This weekend, in a rather masochistic mood, I decided to clean out. I mean, The Big Clean, the one I promised myself I would attempt over the summer. These are the things that slip behind while what we call 'life' goes on, right? 

You may not know this but in my house I have many wooden trunks. I used to collect them. You may also not know that I moved around quite a lot in the early years (I was even going to say 'self-defining years', but when does one ever finish defining Self; we are all works-in-progress). So, in these many wooden trunks I have been stashing letters, photographs, kids' drawings, unwanted jewellery, beads, more photographs, beady-eyed sculptures, torn diaries, for years and years. 

I need a drink before I can open them. 

As I began I remembered something that a friend once wrote to me - in a handwritten letter!- that stuck. She spoke about the moment that she was putting out the rubbish and she looked back to the lights of her house, where her family (since split up, re-partnered, split up) had just finished dinner. She said that in that moment, she saw her life, and she realised she was content.

This thought crystallised as I started to open envelope after envelope of images. Just-born babies, kids in trucks, first-day-at-school shots, art shots, nudes, road trip reports, ceremonies, a friend who told me he would kill himself, (and did); more breastfeeding shots, a new baby, a tableful of family, bedraggled kids on a beach, sandcastles, my hero Youssou N'Dour..

And then, at the bottom of the trunk, face down, I saw love. Oh geez. That knocked me for six. You remember it. You wanted it so hard, you fought for it so hard.

And you lost, by the way.

Initially your kids are such unknowing and generous beings, prepared to love you unconditionally as you do them, but if they knew. If they knew how messy it all was then, all the high drama, would they have traded you in or begged to be adopted out?

I wonder. And yet, looking at these innumerable photos, you see moments where it worked, where there was harmony, deep and fundamental harmony or snatches of it.

Years ago, when my kids were young and we had come to live in this house, I used to go outside in the dark with a cup of tea and look up at the bedroom lights glowing. Even then I knew I was holding onto it, that these moments were vast and finite. Now, most of my kids have moved out to study and I rather enjoy walking up to the main road with the rubbish, along the unsealed drive between the vineyard and the green winter wheat, with the dark villa on the rise looking like Arnold Böcklin's Island of the Dead. It isn't a long walk, but it's enough to allow a few thoughts to wriggle loose. On the way down the hill - always - I see the house lit up, less than in years passed, and I think Yes, this is happening now, this is what it is.

Not a bad thought.


In other wild and alluring news from the ranch I spotted a pair of hipsters at my local country supermarket. I began a sneaky pursuit. Were they real hipsters who had moved here to grow cherries? Were they on a visit to some confounded farmer - a family relative? I followed the girl's blue hair and the guy's cropped beard and tattooed neck and rolled-up jeans until they cottoned on to my crooked trolley full of dog food.

It remains a mystery.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Divorced Author's Guide to New Year's Resolutions

1. Don't bother about saying you are giving up coffee. You never will.
2. Don't bother dressing up for work.
3. When in doubt about your current project, go for a drive listening to Rachmaninov. You will realise the smallness of your concerns.
4. Try and food shop for your offspring
5. Do not buy another Moleskin for your writing notes. It will join the fifteen empty ones in your drawer.
6. When depressed, try cleaning the house. Remember it makes you feel useful.
7. When doubly depressed, swim a hundred laps and watch Law & Order eating a huge spinach omelette. You will feel strong and righteous.
8. Decide what you're going to do about the mouse in the attic.
9. Who cares about the story order in your new unpublished story collection?
10. DO NOT talk to non-writers about the order of the stories in your new collection.
11. DO NOT ask your adult son to read new short stories with embarrassing sex scenes.
12. Accept that impoverished writers do not require countless pairs of gorgeous leather boots and Dolce e Gabbana stilettos. Yet.
13. Fill the damned fridge!
14. Don't bark at your offspring when they hungrily ask for an Italian lunch. At 4pm.
15. Stop screaming at hunters in the fields just because they are killing doddery pheasants and you think they are cruel beings. Remember they might take a potshot at the wild foreign woman dressed like a Sherpa.
16. Get off Facebook. Try and understand Twitter.
17. Don't eat ALL the Pierre Marcolini chocolates in three days.
18. Try and remember one good joke.
19. Blog regularly, eat regularly, sleep regularly.
20. Feed the cats.

Good luck and a marvellous 2015 to all you divorced authors and more balanced people as well!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The End of Love: What if Anais Nin and Henry Miller had Skyped?

I had a thought. Young Diva Daughter (who doesn’t read this) spends much time with her Beloved on Skype. They are bewitched. Captivated. If not Skyping, they are furiously typing on whatsapp. Everything is short and furious and oh-so-immediate. No chafing at the postbox and ripping open envelopes with foreign stamps. No scribbled-on sheets of paper to clutch to the heart.
It makes me think of love letters. I mean Love Letters.
Did you ever write reams and scrolls and reams to your Beloved? Hell yeah. (And I didn’t pick up any of them online either.) Ahh, it’s going to sound very old-fashioned to say this, but Weren't Those The Days…
I honestly remember twenty-page intercontinental letters (the girl was verbose; and I couldn’t blog!) and I’m talking about twice a week. I remember notes scribbled after making love, when another Beloved had fallen asleep. The first thing he would read when he got up to go to work! Written with – yes! – a biro on paper. Bits of poems copied out (not copied and pasted). Queasy declarations in bad French or Italian. Collages of dumb photos.. metro tickets.. 
But mostly words words words. Written words where you had to get a flow going and edit yourself as you flew along (no auto-correct or spell-check or any form of self-editing). These words were raw and full of flight, they were scrawled high or crinkled in the corner, cramped along the sides of the page.
Do you remember? Do you remember word love?

And now imagine this. Some of last century’s great lovers (or the most show-offy ones, probably) have just spent an amorous afternoon together. The man – the sexy/sleazy Henry Miller – rushes home to his poor digs and he logs on, and here is Henry looking worse for wear filling up Anais’ screen with his crooked bookshelves on the wall behind. Would we ever have been handed down words such as these to savour if Nin and Miller had skyped??

Don’t expect me to be sane any more. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes – you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous… You became a woman with me. I was almost terrified by it. You are not just thirty years old – you are a thousand years old… I read the paper about suicides and murders and I understand it all thoroughly. I feel murderous, suicidal. I feel somehow that it is a disgrace to do nothing, to just bide one’s time, to take it philosophically, to be sensible..

Quelle fever!
Now do yourself – and the Beloved – a favour. Get out your pen. Find some beautiful paper.

And write a Love Letter.